Monday, October 4, 2021

There's More To You Than Money

Continuing my thoughts on the role of Treasure in RPGs...

When I first entered the RPG hobby I had very little experience with or exposure to Fantasy fiction of the type that inspired D&D.

I may have read The Hobbit by that point but I'm not positive. I first played Holmes Basic D&D in August of '77 and the animated film wouldn't air until November. Fantasy to me was Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and books like Faeries and Gnomes. I knew what Knights, Dragons, and Castles were thanks to Erol Flynn films on the Sunday Afternoon Movie, Walt Disney films and Bugs Bunny/Warner Brothers cartoons.

Yeah, I wasn't what you'd call 'well versed'. 

My closest friends were largely in the same situation, so we defaulted to what we did know: Movies, TV shows, and comic books. That's why in our first campaign ever we almost never looted the bodies, never checked for treasure, and we weren't really concerned about money for the most part. Of course we needed money from time to time but we didn't concern ourselves with it or with trying to amass it. Obtaining wealth and all that simply wasn't high on our list of interests or priorities. 

As I've mentioned, our roles models for heroic characters were Captain America, Mister Spock, and The Lone Ranger. None of these fellows searched fallen enemies for loose change. How demeaning for a hero! That's the work of low lives and common thieves. 

Sometime later when I would play with others who'd been playing the game 'correctly', I was confused and a little weirded out by all the pick pocketing, tomb robbing, and stealing from corpses. Over time and exposure to the source material found in Appendix N I found it...well...less strange but still freaking odd.

AD&D would eventually come along and we would start playing a game wherein you gain Loot Points...sorry...Experience Points for finding Treasure. Wait. Let me read that again. Experience equals something something Gold something something...hmmm. Yeah, not doing that.

It makes no sense. How does finding coins contribute to you being better at healing spells or smashing a goblin's head with your mace? The system already had enough counter-intuitive, hard to swallow concepts for me without the idea that wealth made you a better wall climber or barbarian berserker. This cognitive dissonance (which I honestly had with many elements of AD&D) was what first inspired me to do things a little differently.

Beginning with my first major Aerth/Winghorn Guard campaign in 1983 (or thereabouts), I used a homebrew Experience Point system based on things like 'Creative Use of an Ability, Spell, Item, or Weapon' and 'Personal Character Development'. Contrary to what some would assume, it wasn't that players tried to emote whenever possible to get XP but rather if you happened to you'd be rewarded.

These rewards were given by the DM (me) but based largely on popular opinion of the party members. Each player would bring up a cool moment, action, or bit of dialogue from one of the other players and we'd discuss if it warranted a reward. I still use a similar system today in many of my games. 

What made this work especially well back then was that The Winghorn Guard campaign wasn't about Treasure hunting. The game focused on the PCs as Heroes, protecting innocents from monsters, thwarting thieves guilds, and preventing mad demi-gods from taking over the world. How then would the PCs ever obtain Experience Points? In fact, I created a system wherein the PCs would get XP for donating coins/money to their organization to help maintain it. 

In the end I don't recall how wealthy any of these characters became. That is to say, we don't sit around telling stories of the Treasure we found or money we made. Does anyone? Instead, we remember the characters - their personalities, activities, and the events that surrounded them. That's what was memorable and so that's what was rewarded.

Additional thoughts are brewing...

Barking Alien


  1. I first started roleplaying by playing Champions, so I had a very different view of experience and how it was gained. It wasn't until much later on that I would play any sort of fantasy game. I just started playing a Pathfinder game with a group of guys I haven't played with for about 30 years and it is still weird for me to watch these guys going through an old smelly orcs pockets for loose change.

    1. You're playing my song Tom.

      It can be quite a shock when you encounter something one group takes for granted but your own sees as totally nuts.

    2. A side note I meant to add...

      I was talking with my Sunday Group about this subject and was reminded of a D&D game I ran in the late 80s at a local convention. One of the con organizers was a friend and I did him a favor by filling in for a guy who had an emergency and couldn't make it.

      It was a fairly stock Dungeon Crawl, the goal being something about a kidnapped noble and obtaining a rumored treasure. Bog standard. The PCs were pre-gens but there was a bit of customizing to be done before we started play. After they adjusted their characters, in an effort to add a bit of something to make it interesting I asked each player, "Why are you after the Treasure?"

      Most were confused, confirming the goal was to find and (if possible) rescue the noble. I assured them they were correct but reminded them there was rumored to be a considerable treasure to be found deep in the dungeon.

      The Cleric: "I'm looking to build a new temple to my deity in the main city. The old one collapsed long ago."

      The Paladin: "I'm not after the treasure but should I come across it, I will donate all if not most of it the temple of my deity.

      The Ranger: "Not sure as I really don't need the money. I live in a cabin I built myself outside of town. If the Cleric's deity is in the same pantheon as mine I'll give him some money to help him out."

      The Thief: "Honestly I'm getting too old for this. I got a cottage, a wife, a kid who wants to go to the Wizard's College, and I really just need this score."

      The Wizard: "Do you think material components and spellbooks grow on trees? Well, some do and technically paper can be made from wood you see and...where was I? Ah yes, I need the treasure to help fund my magical research."

      What started as an offhand comment to add a little spice and get to know the players and their PCs became through lines that ran the course of the entire session. The Cleric listened to the Thief's issues trying to do right by his family. The Cleric and Paladin compared and contrasted the virtues of their deities. The Wizard went on and on about which plants and herbs were more or less effective for this or that spell, boring everyone except the Ranger. He mentioned that some of the herbs mentioned grew near his cabin, delighting the Wizard.

      Treasure is just a thing. It's more a MacGuffin than a reason to adventure.

  2. Picture this guy: he is your typical scoundrel in your typical tavern. He just met a mysterious stranger (likely a wizard in disguise) and his apprentice. They offer an escort mission with a huge reward and, after some negotiation, our scoundrel accepts to join the party.

    A bit later they are in the Dark Lord's fortress when they discover there's a princess held captive in the dungeons and scheduled to be terminated. Once again, our scoundrel is offered huge riches and he agrees to rescue the princess.

    In the final act of the adventure, the princess' army of rebels is going to attack the fortress. Our scoundrel, knowing the challenge ahead is above the party's level (they already left one dead while escaping the fortress), does what any sensible money-motivated character would do: he cashes in the reward and declines to join the assault.

    Maybe in another universe he would turn back at the last moment and tip the battle in favor of the rebels. But that would mean giving up money as a motivation, since the rebels are starving for resources and the rest of the party is in it for personal and ideological reasons. He would take huge risks with no immediate reward. Just one gold piece a day until the Dark Lord is defeated.

    Does that sound like it could be made into a conventional RPG?

    1. Just wait until the Dark Lord finds out that the scoundrel who helped destroy the fortress owes money to local gangsters, and assembles his own party of rogues to hunt down the scoundrel and princess...but it was all an elaborate ruse to lure the apprentice wizard into a trap!

  3. As a side note on historical cases.
    - Ancient Greeks were looting corpses for arms, shields & armors to make trophies on the battlefield (Tropaion). I don't know for looting money on corpses, but I remembers that heroes of the Troy War were taking prisonners/slaves (Achileus took Briseis during the sack of Lymessus).
    - Roman generals were often distributing loot to their troops (a way to gain their loyalty). I guess a golden torque on a fallen celt warrior was quite tempting. And human being were part of the loot (Caesar make a lot of slaves and wealth during the Gallic War). And Romans were also erecting trophy like the Greeks (Tropaeum).
    - For Frank soldiers, loot was important, everybody wanted a share. An exemple that comes to mind : The Vase of Soisson dusing Clovis's time (around AD 486).
    - As far as I remember, Viking didn't loot arms and armors (at least from another viking) as they believed that the deceased would come back to recover them (Draugrs). Appart from this, anything that wasn't solidly nailed was fair game...
    - During medieval time, knights were capturing opponents to ramsom them. The higher the status, the higher the ramsom (there was several cases of kings being captured). For commoners, I don't think they were paid much as it was part of their obligations to their lord.
    - Mercenary units were often badly paid and often prone to looting and sacking. Even Rome and the Pape werent spared (Sack of Rome 1527).

    I guess that in some campaigns, looting would be a necessity or at least central to the concept (Twilight 2000 or any post-apocalyptic games, Third Servile War, any kind of pirates, etc.). In others it is completely alien to the concept (Star Trek). All depend on how heroic are the heroes and of their culture. In some cultures, this would also include slavery.

    I one campaign I played (Mechwarrior), our mercenary unit was ordered to make a raid on a planet, faking being pirates. We took everything we could (up to the toilet paper), as long it was not too securely fixed. The only question was "Is it worth the time to get it"...

    For D&D, it is more a question of game mechanics (at least up to AD&D2). Starting D&D3, gold isn't used for experience, but you need huge amounts to buy magical items (more than 120 000gp for an Holy Avenger... But who would sell one?).

    1. This is interesting to me and brings up several thoughts and questions.

      A lot of what you're talking about here involves raid and the war time activities of troops and dedicated fighting men. Not saying independent sell swords would act any differently (as you note) but we don't often see PCs involved in full scale war operations. If we did it might make more sense to me for the reasons you describe.

      I generally view magic items for sale as something I don't like in my campaigns, although paying someone to create a specific item for you does occur. It is of course fairly common to be paid to retrieve an item rumored to be buries in some ruin or dungeon.